Thousands of people across Columbus to gather for On the Table 2019. Here’s how to join.

Thousands of folks in the Columbus area will gather next month for a daylong series of civic conversations about how to improve their community. Here’s what you need to know about the event and how to participate.

Betsy Covington, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, said On the Table has only two rules: “Gather in small groups of 8-12 people, and you have to serve some kind of food that you can share.”

Covington spoke during the foundation’s news conference Tuesday to announce its plans for the Oct. 22 On the Table.

Columbus is one of 10 U.S. cities in the On the Table program, courtesy of a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley’s endowment funds also support the local version of this initiative, preparing for its third year.

On the Table had approximately 6,500 participants at 650 tables in 2017 and more than 7,000 participants at 700 tables in 2018, Covington said.

Covington expressed why this initiative continues to matter, alluding to what many have called a divisive political and social climate in the country.

“We know how important it is that we connect with each other better,” she said. “We know that stakes may be higher than they’ve ever been.”

And this year, Covington said, “we want to hear from more and different people. The usual suspects? Absolutely welcome. But we’re hoping that people who don’t always recognize that they have a place at the table will also believe that they’re invited and they’re wanted. When we say ‘your voice matters,’ we mean it.”

To that end, the foundation is establishing “a stellar outreach task force,” Covington said. “We’re looking for people who want to be inviters for their neighborhoods, their group of friends, their church or their coworkers. If you want to lead others to their place at the table, this is your chance.”

To join the task force, register at OnTheTableChatt.com. That’s also where residents can register now and learn how to host a private On the Table conversation. Registration for individuals to join one of the public events is available with four “super hosts” on the website as of Tuesday afternoon and more expected to be added in the next several weeks.

On the Table “super hosts,” which have at least 10 tables at one time, also are trying different ways to attract new voices to their conversations. Thirty super hosts have signed up so far this year, Covington said, already more than last year’s number.

“It’s an early indicator of the enthusiasm that people have,” she said.

The Columbus Museum benefited from the On the Table conversations it hosted the past two years by gathering programming ideas from their participants, said Bridgette Russell, the museum’s marketing and public relations director. This year, however, the museum will expand its On the Table scope beyond the cultural arts.

Moving its event from the afternoon to the early morning — 7:30 for “Donuts and Discussion” — the museum welcomes “anyone who wants to talk,” Russell said, hoping to accommodate those who can’t attend in the middle of a workday.

Another new aspect this year’s On the Table comes from PMB Broadcasting, which owns 10 local radio stations. In the next couple weeks, PMB will record and release on its digital platforms and at OnTheTableChatt.com a podcast of an On the Table conversation to allow folks to hear one before they decide to attend, said PMB assistant general manager Joseph Brannan.

Covington called her participation in eight On the Table events in 2017 and seven in 2018 “a fabulous, almost sacred experience … in different parts of our town with people that normally you just wouldn’t have a chance to have that rich and deep conversation.”

Then she made a public appeal.

“If you can help us,” she said, “we can turn individual citizens in our community into a passionate, compassionate, connected group of people who can help transform our city for good.”

Such conversations foster understanding and empathy among residents, Covington said. According to the foundation’s survey, answered by 610 participants, after the event:

  • 78% talked to at least one person they hadn’t known;
  • 50% exchanged contact information with somebody they hadn’t known;
  • 65% said the conversation helped them better understand how they take action to address the community’s issues and challenges;
  • 91% said they were likely to take action on an issue discussed at their On the Table conversation;
  • 96% said they plan to participate in On the Table this year.

Such conversations also spark ideas that result in community improvement projects.

The foundation welcomed last year’s On the Table participants to apply for “action grants” then announced in April the 12 winners, totaling $20,000 in grants, out of more than 20 applicants. The foundation plans to conduct another round of action grants after this year’s events.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.